Special Teams Weigh Heavily in Roster Choices

There's no greater evidence of that than the uncertain standing of Jeremy Ross and the rise of Micah Hyde and Sam Barrington. Ross entered training camp as a solid favorite to return kicks but his inconsistency at returner and receiver could cost him dearly.

Special teams, as always, will be vital in determining the Green Bay Packers' final roster.

"Very important," general manager Ted Thompson said on Tuesday. "It's one thing to sit there and go through the fantasy football thing and say, ‘Well, I'll take this, take this.' Until you have to figure out how to play the game and who helps you win the games and that sort of thing. Special teams are a huge part of Mike (McCarthy) and his staff's focus and it weighs in heavily."

There's no bigger case in point of that than Jeremy Ross.

Ross entered training camp the favorite to return kickoffs and punts for the Packers. In six quarters of regular-season action last year, Ross had punt returns of 32 and 58 yards and a kickoff return of 44 yards. He's got the size and strength to run through tackles and the speed to break into the clear.

However, he's been unable to find that magic in training camp. More importantly, ball security remains an issue for the player whose muffed punt turned the tide in the playoff loss against San Francisco. He's dropped a handful of punts at practice, though he's been practically clean on kickoffs.

"Jeremy's a very solid returner," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "He's a strong runner with the football. He's a good catcher. He's very much in the plan."

In the plan but perhaps on the outside looking in considering his inconsistency at returner and receiver. At St. Louis on Saturday night, the Packers started with Johnathan Franklin doing double duty. Franklin was a record-setting running back at UCLA who never returned a kick, and it's shown throughout the spring and into the summer. His indecision on a punt against the Rams led to a turnover when he failed to make the catch and failed to alert Brandon Smith to get out of the way of the bouncing ball.

Ross got one shot with a punt return, breaking off a 10-yard return. Rookie Micah Hyde dodged two tacklers with an impressive 13-yard return and might be the front-runner for the job.

Hyde had modest success as Iowa's punt returner the past two seasons but is getting his first real shot at the job. He has a knack for tracking the ball and catching it cleanly. At Tuesday's sunny and windy practice, with Tim Masthay bombing one punt after another to the sideline, Hyde made a series of spectacular running catches.

"We looked at him right when he first got here after the draft and knew that he could catch punts," Slocum said. "Things have a chance to change at all times."

What seems to be changing is Ross' shot at making the team. At one point during training camp, he was with the first unit on kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return. On Monday and Tuesday, he was a "starter" only on the kickoff team.

Ross has averaged 22.0 yards on two kickoff returns in the preseason. Franklin, Ross and DuJuan Harris were among those in the rotation on Tuesday.

Special teams are critical in most teams' decision-making but especially so for the Packers, who have few starting spots in play for the draft picks. So, it's noteworthy when Sam Barrington, a seventh-round inside linebacker, moved into the No. 1 unit on punt return and kickoff return on Tuesday. Barrington is stuck on the third team on defense but his rise up the special-teams depth chart signals he's got a real chance to make the 53-man roster.

"I think our group of linebackers is very strong," Slocum said. "I think our corners are, as well. I think our tight ends in the last week or so have started to really show up. We've got some good players in young positions."

With kickoff and punt segments on Monday and kickoff return and punt return the emphasis on Tuesday, cornerback Jarrett Bush and inside linebackers Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore were on all four units, and tight ends D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor, receiver Jarrett Boykin and fullback John Kuhn are on three. Another inside linebacker, Terrell Manning, is among those on two of the units.

"I think it becomes obvious that the bottom of the roster has to play good special teams," Slocum said. "That's the way the National Football League is. They start figuring it out the longer they go through this process. A lot of these guys when they were in college didn't play much special teams because they were the best player, at least at their position their team."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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